Long-Distance Walking, Mountains, USA
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Escape from Springer Mountain

Because there’s no lovelier place name than Appalachia, and because that long and winding, kneecap-grinding pathway is one of my favourite pieces of real estate on the planet, and because I’ve finally started the gruelling task of scanning my way through a boxful of dusty pictures, here are some extracts from my paper journals of seven years ago, and a few of those dusty pictures, from my first, frazzled evening on the incredible Appalachian Trail.

MONDAY MARCH 3, 2004, 10:10PM

SPRINGER MOUNTAIN, GA

It’s been a trial just getting here to the official start of the south>north A.T. trek, but I’m here, I’m fed, and I’m warming up after a chilly hour outside cooking in the darkness. And already, before my first official step, bear dramas. I’m camped just down from the summit, in the woods near a couple of other tents. Down the side-trail a bit is a nice two-storey shelter with half a dozen hikers inside. There are a couple of elaborate steel-cable systems for hoisting your bear bag or entire pack way up of the ground between a couple of trees:

Some commotion earlier as the people at the shelter shooed off a canny bear that had somehow managed to penetrate their defences and get someone’s food down. So the message is: be vigilant and bear-wary, always. Apparently last night a bear got someone’s rope-hoisted bag down — and they’ve been known to eat a camera, lured by the fragrant film within.

A week or so earlier: my gear for the A.T.

I left Brisbane at 7:00am Sunday morning and won’t dwell here on the misery of the ensuing four-leg epic: Bris > Sydney > San Francisco > Chicago > Atlanta. Almost no sleep, scant entertainment, seats made for contortionist midgets, still feeling nothing in the way of excitement or even nerves. Just too overwhelmed by all that planning, packing, research and the melancholy process of finishing up at work, saying all my goodbyes, trying (unsuccessfully) to leave my flat in a decent state.

And now, jet-lagged, still rather fried, I’m in a tent on a windy night in northern Georgia, with bears prowling around outside, a million miles away from, and almost 15 hours behind Brisbane, with 2,160 miles* of walking ahead of me to the almost mythical end of the trail on Katahdin…

A few hours later, unable to sleep, I record a selection of almost hallucinatory sensations and recollections by headlamp light:

2:47AM. Awake to a tent floodlit with white moonlight. A full moon tonight: a good omen. Hope I sleep better than usual on this trip — 17.5 miles a day should wipe me out nicely each evening…

Walking around identical, surreal airports, reading American newspaper reports of Iraqi war dead, Chicago gun homicides. A perfect view of Scorpius above a glassy midnight Pacific. Meals I couldn’t eat…

At the airport in Atlanta, realised they’d somehow lost my pack hipbelt and buckle… A Super 8 motel opposite the Amtrak station, where I dodged a couple of sleazy women and spent a sleepless night with a bad TV and an addled mind… A quick American breakfast, free, in the motel office: coffee, fake O.J., two donuts and two danishes. A bus to the MARTA station, a train to Sandy Springs and the REI store…A Hispanic guy replaced the buckle…Train again to Garnett station and the Greyhound. Got my ticket to Gainesville about 60 miles north…

A woman asked me if I was doing the A.T. She was from Massachusetts and was carrying a lightly packed external-frame pack. We talked about sharing a ride to the Trail. Name: Lauren**, nice enough, lanky, blue eyes, pigtails. But some subdued alarm bells ringing… On the bus, a typical Greyhound psychodrama, involving the fat, black, female driver and a passenger who’d pissed her off. This played out verbally at the front, then over the P.A. She apologised to him as we reached Gainesville…

Lauren and I split a cab with a young long-haired driver and his female companion (wife?). Picture of a boy (their son?) praying, on the dash. Said he’d walked the A.T., N > S. Tattoos all over his arms and hands. Lori wanted to buy booze (more alarm bells) but the gas station we stopped at only sold beer. She bought a taco and a pack of smokes (ring, ring) and talked about her dogs (chihuahuas) with the driver. We were going through green southern woods with churches, shacks, gas stations. Springer Mountain, one of the Blue Ridge Mountains, ahead with a distinctive pointy knob.

After 6.5 miles creeping up a dirt road, we came to a parking area and shared the $80 fare, a good deal. I was glad to get out of there though — all three had smoked at some point, Lori at least three and another as the cab drove off. She had to sit on her arse to get the pack on, and I soon happily left her behind as I went up the .9 miles of trail to the top of Springer and the official start of my little odyssey.

Sun setting over the wooded hills stretching toward Alabama…

..I took some snaps, kissed the plaque with its A.T. map…

..and departing to this nearby camp area, met a brother and sister with a huge boxer dog who are camped in the closest tent. He came over later — a young bearded guy called Seth**. They’d hitched from Iowa to attempt a thru-hike. He was also a smoker and said he was out of shape. Oh yeah: Lauren’s pack had already broken and she’d set it aside on the trail. She’s debating fixing it up with duct tape or going back to town to replace it.

Vibes of potential chaos emanate from her — think I’ll leave her way behind today…

* The total changes each year with reroutes, and was actually 2,175 miles when I finished.

** Not their real names

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

Next post: Sunrise & a sunken flood victim

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